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People and Society, Social Structure

homogeneous society, group-oriented, family lines, personal decisions, commoners

A largely homogeneous society, Japan does not exhibit the deep ethnic, religious, and class divisions that characterize many countries. The gaps between rich and poor are not as glaring in Japan as they are in many countries, and a remarkable 90 percent or more of Japanese people consider themselves middle class. This contrasts with most of Japanís previous recorded history, when profound social and economic distinctions were maintained between Japanís aristocracy and its commoners. Two periods of social upheaval in the modern era did much to soften these class divisions. The first was the push for modernization under the Meiji government at the end of the 19th century; the second was the period of Allied occupation after World War II. Among the most profound of the transformations that took place in the modern era was the empowerment of individuals rather than extended families and family lines as the fundamental units of society. As a result of this change, Japanese men and women experienced greater freedom in making personal decisions, such as choosing a spouse or career.

Nevertheless, some significant social differences do exist in Japan, as evidenced by the discrimination in employment, education, and marriage faced by the countryís Korean minority and by its burakumin. Burakumin means ďhamlet people,Ē a name that refers to the segregated villages these people lived in during Japanís feudal era. Burakumin are indistinguishable from Japanese racially or culturally, and today they generally intermingle with the rest of the population. However, for centuries they were treated as a separate population because they worked in occupations that were considered unclean, such as disposing of the dead and slaughtering animals. Despite laws to the contrary, their descendants still suffer discrimination in Japan. The number of burakumin is thought to be about 3 million, or about 2 percent of the national population. They are scattered in various parts of the country, usually in discrete communities, with the largest concentrations living in the urban area encompassing Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto.

Despite the shift toward individual empowerment, Japanese society remains significantly group-oriented compared to societies in the West. Japanese children learn group consciousness at an early age within the family, the basic group of society. Membership in groups expands with age to include the individualís class in school, neighborhood, extracurricular clubs during senior high school and college, and, upon entering adulthood, the workplace. All along, the individual is taught to be dedicated to the group, to forgo personal gain for the benefit of the group as a whole, and to value group harmony. At the highest level, the Japanese nation as a whole may be thought of as a group to which its citizens belong and have obligations. The form of character building that instills these values is called seishin shuyo.

Most groups are structured hierarchically. Individual members have a designated rank within the group and responsibilities based on their position. Seniority has traditionally been the main qualification for higher rank, and socialization of young people in Japan emphasizes respect and deference to oneís seniors.

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